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Women and minorities in tech are making their voices heard

Tanya Amert (Left to right), Diane Pozefsky, Sydney Mantell and Armando Jimenez speak at a panel on diversity in Computer Science on Wednesday hosted by The Computer Science department.
Tanya Amert (Left to right), Diane Pozefsky, Sydney Mantell and Armando Jimenez speak at a panel on diversity in Computer Science on Wednesday hosted by The Computer Science department.

Sitting in a room with fellow team members and higher-up employees, someone suggests a solution for a work problem. No one in the room acknowledges they said anything. A few moments later, someone beside them says the same thing and receives appreciation for the good idea.

For many women and minority computer scientists, including Charles Campbell, UNC alum and co-founder of the (now-closed) online shopping mall Socialvest, experiences like this cause him to question if his ideas are not being heard because he is not white, like the majority of people in the computer science industry and academia. 

Campbell wondered if no one listened to him in this situation because he is Black.

Taking time to shed light on these experiences of women and minorities in technology, the UNC Computer Science Diversity Panel showcased the difficulties these groups can face while also celebrating their accomplishments Wednesday night.

The panel featured Campbell; Tanya Amert, a third-year Ph.D. candidate and former Microsoft software development engineer; Diane Pozefsky, director of Undergraduate Studies and computer science professor; and computer science students Sydney Mantell and Armando Jimenez.

In his own experience, Campbell could not tell if no one acknowledged him because of race or because he was one of the newer members of the team.

“It was almost like a twilight zone,” Campbell said.

Amert has also dealt with similar issues in meetings as a woman, but now makes her voice heard by raising her hand.

“I found it very successful — which fits with my personality, fortunately — to channel Hermione Granger and in the middle of a loud meeting, if they're completely not listening, I'm sitting there like this in a meeting full of guys,” Amert said, with her arm raised. “And eventually, they're going to be like, 'Why is she raising her hand?' They're all going to be silent and then I can talk.”

The panel also discussed the issue of assertive women in the workplace and how they are often viewed negatively. Pozefsky said in dealing with this, women should pick their fights and focus on building strong relationships.

“I've always made a real effort to have personal relationships with people and to get to know them as people and that helps a lot,” Pozefsky said. “It's really hard to refer to somebody with a very derogatory term if you've been to their house for dinner.”

In addressing the low number of women and minorities in computer science, Amert stressed the importance of becoming a learning assistant in introductory computer science courses.

“When I was an undergrad, I think almost all of my professors were male,” Amert said. “I think it's really powerful seeing somebody who looks like you in the classroom. My biggest recommendation would be to get involved as an undergrad (learning assistant). Put yourself in a position in a classroom where other students who are coming into the program see you and maybe they'll see themselves, and that will give them that motivation: ‘Hey, they could do it, I bet I could do it too.’”

Although many UNC students see learning and teaching assistants that look like them, the path in being a computer science major has not always been easy for Jimenez, who's a sophomore.

“It is challenging, but then there's also that aspect of, 'If I get past this, I know I can succeed in this course,'” Jimenez said. “I think the going does get tough sometimes. I think it's really rewarding at the end.”

Mantell, also a sophomore, said the community computer science students build in classes is a guiding factor for her success.

“I would not be as successful at all if it wasn't for Armando and some other comp TAs I'm friends with and other people in the class,” Mantell said. “It's kind of crazy because COMP 410, which we're in right now, has 300 people in it, but it feels like I know everyone. I never feel afraid to ask questions because they're my friends and they won't judge me.”

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